Once upon a time, a ruminant animal (like a cow or sheep) grazed on living grass and was fed supplemental hay or silage only when such a practice was necessary to sustain the animal's health (e.g. when pastureland was covered with heavy snow). The USDA guidelines for grass-fed meat, while good at first glance, allow a pretty big loophole for producers wanting to take advantage of the well-intentioned consumer. As the standard exists now on the USDA's webpage, the grass-fed marketing claim allows confinement and antibiotic use without restriction. For what it's worth, the USDA acknowledges the limited scope of the grass-fed claim in a notice to the public and suggests that additional claims such as "free-range" and "no antibiotics or hormones administered" may be used to supplement the grass-fed label, when applicable. In other words, buyer beware--American beef only labeled "grass-fed" could have spent a good deal of time eating hay on a feedlot, juiced with antibiotics to fatten it up faster.
If you want the good stuff, you have a couple of options: know (and trust) your farmer or insist on grass-fed, free-range, hormone-free, antibiotic-free beef. Now there's a mouthful. Below, I intend the term "grass-fed" to mean "grazed on pasture most of the year and administered neither antibiotics nor hormones."
Why Eat Grass-Fed?
Many have written books, so I won't bore you with my own. (Pollan and Foer both wrote compellingly on the topic of ethical meat consumption, though they reach different conclusions.)
Here are a few important points to consider:
1. The Environment
I hope I have provided some food for thought. Bear in mind that once you make the switch to grass-fed meat, the conventional stuff may not taste right anymore. The first grass-fed beef burger I ate in my early adulthood brought back a flood of memories...like I hadn't tasted real beef since I was a child. One might say that's because I hadn't.
We vote with our wallets each time we go to the grocery store (or, better yet, to the farmer's market!). One extreme response to the dilemma of ethically and healthfully consuming animal products is to abstain altogether, though there are many who would argue that this is not a sound long-term strategy for personal health. Another response is to educate ourselves, to ask questions, and to demand better. When we choose this path, we choose healthier selves, healthier families, and a healthier planet for all.
In Good Health,
I'm Ethan, a guy whose life used to be controlled by ulcerative colitis. As I systematically tested diets, treatments, and all types of health advice to heal my colon, I learned a lot about my own biology and also how to cook without compromise. I'm here to share the best (and sometimes worst) of that journey with you.